The Gamble

While at the cabin this week I finished off Chris Czajkowski’s book, Cabin at Singing River, Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, and Thomas Rick’s The Gamble. It was a good day to spend with three of my favorite authors on some pretty diverse topics.

Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble Here are some thoughts that I had while reading The Gamble, some of them may be more inflammatory than others.

  • Where was the U.S. media on reporting some of the murders and rape of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers?  Part of what makes a democracy work is a rigorous and independent press and either the media in Iraq failed miserably or the controls placed upon them by the Pentagon made it impossible for them to do their jobs.  From what I remember, the deteriorating security of Iraq made it very dangerous for media during 2005 and 2006 to leave the Green Zone which would have lead to very poor reporting.
  • The book talks a lot about General David Petraeus (with good reason) but are you telling me that he was the only American general who understood that they were waging a counter insurgency, especially after the American failure in Vietnam?  It was a little unreal to read that it was Petraeus that brought all of the military historians together for discussions at Fort Leavensworth about how to fight a counter insurgency war.  The book describes a rather disorganized and poorly lead general staff that is really slow to learn from it’s mistakes and adapt to new realities.  As I type this statement, I realize it’s not the first time I have thought this and I think back to Len Deighton’s excellent book, Blood, Sweat and Folly where he describes both Germany, Italy, and England in the first couple of years of World War II seemingly both wanting to lose WWII.  So maybe the American generals are just following in the proud traditions of generals for centuries.
  • Leopard II tank Watching some media reports the last couple of weeks about the Canadian efforts in Kandahar sound a lot like Fiasco and the early part of Fiasco.  Canadian troops riding around on Leopard tanks while heading back to their base at night doesn’t sound like a counter insurgency campaign.  It’s times like this where I would love to hear Scott Taylor’s insights on how the Canadian military strategy is working there.  (he has some good thoughts here).  This paper states that Canada has taken a combative rather than a counter insurgency role in Afghanistan.
  • I am always amazed by the U.S. Army’s leadership to learn from best practices from other units.  Here was Petraeus leading the 101st Airborne Division and having a lot of success with insurgents by not using tanks and artillery while you have other units suffering increasing casualties while using heavy equipment.  Once locked into a strategy, American commanders only seemed to be capable of escalating their strategy.
  • Why does America (and other countries) promote generals who were not successful.  As Lt. Col. Paul Yingling says "A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."

So I am left with the idea that despite a very highly educated general corps, institutions like West Point, the Command and General Staff College, the National Defense University, National War College, U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, and the War College, which have all increased the professionalism in the military but I also wonder if it has contributed to an over reliance on what they know about past wars rather than adapting to present ones.  Of course another issue is that like a lot of institutions that demand conformity, free thinking is probably bad for your career in the Army and other services so by the time one was able to make a difference in strategy and tactics, perhaps the ability to do so has been lost.

The book also left with the uncomfortable question of what would happen if someone else had been promoted in Petraeus’ place to Fort Leavensworth and instead of re-evaluating and reimagining what needed to be done in Iraq, they had stayed the course of withdrawing and handling the conflict with big weapons and increased violence. 

This was kind of an open ended post.  Leave me your thoughts in the comments below.

6 thoughts on “The Gamble”

  1. Coop, having just finished FIASCO over the weekend one thing Ricks was saying near the end of the book was the media was just exhausted … emotionally, physically, professionally even. Plus, they were getting serious flak and push back from the White House and the military chain-of-command about their negative bent on reporting, that all they were highlighting was the extreme, the negative, and ignoring the wins, the progress. Truth is somewhere in between, but I bet the stress-fatigue was a big contributing factor.

  2. I agree with you but also the networks themselves seemed to back down from showing the truth. “Deadline Iraq” was a great doc. on how reporting was ignored because it didn’t portray what the “public” wanted to see.

  3. Thanks for reading my books!

    On the media: Actually, very few reporters lived inside the Green Zone. But yeah, in 2006 and 2007 it became very difficult to report in Iraq.

    On generals and historians’ commentary: The most difficult thing in war, I think, is to understand the nature of the war. Yet Clausewitz says this is also the most important task of the senior commander. I think what you see in many wars is a chaotic beginning as everyone tries to understand what is going on. It is harder than people think.


  4. Tom,

    Thanks for writing two great books. I think that overall both Fiasco and The Gamble were two of the most intellectually stimulating history books I have read in the last couple of years. Not only did I enjoy Fiasco but so did my non-history loving wife because of the way you tell the story.

  5. Coop and Tom … certainly was interesting reading these books from a Canadian perspective. We were in Saginaw, MI the weekend after Gulf Storm began, and the patriotism was fascinating to see ( went to church and the flags and prayers and passion were certainly heightened ). Then moved to Denver 1991-1997 before heading back to Canada. Some very good insights for attempting to understand Canada’s role in Afghanistan as well. Jordon, want to get together and send PM Harper and his team these books, as well as Homer-Dixon’s iGap and UpsideofDown? I know Gordon Campbell’s deputy minister was reading UoD, a friend here saw it on her shelf. Good to know someone is wrestling w/ it.

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